The first time I met Hunter Thompson was back in 1970, at the America’s Cup yacht race where Hunter had chartered a huge power yacht and was preparing to sail it full steam right into the middle of the race course. (This was shortly after his spectacular but unsuccessful run for the office of the sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, on a mescaline-eating “Capitalist Freak Power” ticket.) When I arrived on board the huge yacht, I found Thompson ensconced on the command deck, munching on a handful of psilocybin pills and regarding the consternation of the snooty Newport sailing establishment with amusement.
We never did manage to cross the path of the cup contenders and Scanlan’s magazine went bankrupt before Hunter wrote up the whole fiasco, but I did learn one thing: this is a guy who understands the importance of perspective. He rode with the Hell’s Angels—and got himself a nasty beating in the process of getting a unique perspective on them. he loaded his car, his bloodstream and his brain cells full of dangerous drugs to cover a conference of drug-busting D.A.’s and turned that experience into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a brilliant exploration of the dark side of the drug scene at the peak of Nixon’s power.
When he covered the 1972 presidential campaign as national affairs editor for Rolling Stone, Thompson’s special deadline-and-drug crazed “Gonzo” journalism—his own patented mix of paranoia, nightmare, recklessness and black humor—would fill nervous secret service agents with fear and loathing on the campaign trail. Ever since then, Thompson’s become a kind of national character with millions of people following the exploits of “Uncle Duke” in the “Doonesbury” comic strip.
This year too, Thompson had another very special but very different perspective: he’s widely reported to have become close to Jimmy Carter and to Carter’s inner circle from the time back in 1974 when he heard Carter’s now-famous Law Day speech. But curiously, there have been more articles speculating about Thompson—his relations with Jimmy Carter and Jann Wenner—this year than by him. He’s never put his own role into perspective until now.
High Times: How have your attitudes toward politics changed since you wrote about eh ’72 presidential election in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail?
Thompson: Well, I think the feeling that I’ve developed since ’72 is that an ideological attachment to the presidency or the president is very dangerous. I think the president should be a businessman; probably he should be hired. It started with Kennedy, where you got sort of a personal attachment to the president, and it was very important that he agree with you and you agree with him and you knew he was on your side. I no longer give a fuck if the president’s on my side, as long as he leaves me alone or doesn’t send me off to any wars or have me busted. The president should take care of business, mind the fucking store and leave people alone.
High Times: So you developed a tired-of-fighting-the-White-House theory?
Thompson: I think I’ve lost my sense that it’s a life or death matter whether someone is elected to this, that or whatever. Maybe it’s losing faith in ideology or politicians—or maybe both. Carter, I think, is an egomaniac, which is good because he has a hideous example of what could happen if he fucks up. I wouldn’t want to follow Nixon’s act, and Carter doesn’t either. He has a whole chain of ugly precedents to make him careful—Watergate, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs—and I think he’s very aware that even the smallest blunder on his part could mushroom into something that would queer his image forever in the next generation’s history texts… if there is a next generation.
I don’t think it matters much to Carter whether he’s perceived as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” but it does matter to him that he’s perceived—by the voters today and by historians tomorrow—as a successful president. He didn’t run this weird Horatio Alger trip from Plains, Georgia, to the White House, only to get there and find himself hamstrung by a bunch of hacks and fixers in the Congress. Which is exactly what’s beginning to happen now, and those people are making a very serious mistake if they assume they’re dealing with just another political shyster, instead of the zealot he really is. Jimmy Carter is a true believer, and people like that are not the ones you want to cross by accident.
I’m not saying this in defense of the man, but only to emphasize that anybody in Congress or anywhere else who plans to cross Jimmy Carter should take pains to understand the real nature of the beast they intend to cross. He’s on a very different wavelength than most people in Washington. That’s one of the main reasons he’s president, and also one of the first things I noticed when I met him down in Georgia in 1974—a total disdain for political definition or conventional ideologies.
His concept of populist politics is such a strange mix of total pragmatism and almost religious idealism that every once in a while—to me at least, and especially when I listen to some of the tapes of conversations I had with him in 1974 and ’75—that he sounds like a borderline anarchist… which is probably why he interested me from the very beginning; and why he still does, for that matter. Jimmy Carter is a genuine original. Or at least he was before he got elected. God only knows what he is now, or what he might turn into when he feels he’s being crossed—by Congress, the Kremlin, Standard Oil or anything else. He won’t keep any enemies list on paper, but only because he doesn’t have to; he has a memory like a computerized elephant.
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